Jun 062016
An artist's impression of an EMP explosion.

An artist’s impression of an EMP explosion.

One of the things that gives us the most troubled sleep of all is the risk of, and outcomes from, an EMP attack on the US.  In case you’re not fully up to speed on this draconian danger, we discuss EMP attacks – what they are, how fearsome their impacts would be, and how easy they are to stage – in several articles here.

Our sense is that the danger of an EMP event is steadily increasing.  To be blunt, the world is becoming an increasingly unfriendly place, and with growing sophistication of both nuclear weapons and their associated delivery systems (ie missiles) by both North Korea and Iran (as well as other countries that aren’t being quite so public about their actions) and some threats that translate quite clearly to ‘if we need to, we’ll use an EMP device to bring your country to its knees’, the thought of an EMP attack is far from impossible to countenance.  At the same time, our lives continue to become more and more dependent on electronics for everything we do.

We are increasingly of the opinion that it is prudent to maintain a spare set of essential electronic items in a protective Faraday cage so that if/when an EMP occurs, you have a backup set of equipment to turn to.

One consideration when planning for this.  There is no point in keeping backup equipment that relies on other equipment or services owned/operated by other people/organizations, unless you are certain that these other parties will also be able to continue to provide services after an EMP.  For example, what is the point of having a backup cell phone if all the cell towers and network infrastructure by the wireless companies is fried by EMP, and also if the cell phones owned by most of your contacts are also fried!

So, with that as introduction, let’s continue…..

As you may already know, and as our other linked articles explain, an EMP attack destroys electronics by creating high voltage surges in them.  These high voltage surges are induced by electromagnetic radiation – a fancy way of saying ‘radio waves and similar type things’.  Because the voltage is induced by electromagnetic radiation, there is no need for electronic objects to be connected to anything – they wirelessly ‘receive’ these voltage surges, whether they want to or not, the same way that radios receive radio waves, televisions receive broadcast tv signals and cell phones receive phone calls.

Worst of all, perhaps, switching off your devices doesn’t protect them from these voltage surges.  You can unplug your devices and take the batteries out, but they are still at risk of being ‘fried’ by the electromagnetic radiation caused by an EMP device.

Note that while EMP effects are a problem to your at-home electronics, solar flares and storms are not a problem, assuming your electronics are not plugged into utility power (or possibly internet connections).  Unplugged, and battery operated, devices will not be affected by the different type of EMF radiation generated in a solar storm.

Back to EMP risks and counter-measures.  There are several ways to protect your electronics.  Some are impractical, at least for us, because they involve a redesign and ‘hardening’ of the electronic items when they are designed and built.

Others are impractical for other reasons, such as burying our electronics at least 10 ft underground.

The easiest approach for most of us would be to select items we wanted to protect and save for use after an EMP, and place those items inside a special type of container, known as a Faraday Cage.  This device is named after the English scientist Michael Faraday, the discoverer of electromagnetic fields, and deemed the inventor of these protective containers, back in 1836, although in truth it was Benjamin Franklin who first observed the properties of such containers, in 1755.

If you think about it, there’s something slightly strange about using a device first observed 260 years ago, to protect against a modern type of risk only developed 60 years ago.  But progress is a funny thing, right?

What is a Faraday Cage

The chances are you may have already experienced the protective effects of a Faraday cage, and without even realizing what was going on.  If you’ve ever been on a plane that was struck by lightning, the reason you lived to tell the tale – and the reason the plane wasn’t destroyed – is because the entire plane acts as a super Faraday cage, protecting itself and its contents.

A Faraday cage is simply an electrically conductive metal container that completely surrounds its contents.  When electromagnetic radiation reaches the container/cage, it has two choices for what it does next – it can either travel through the container, and thereby exposing the contents inside to its damaging effects, or it can travel around the outside of the container on its conductive exterior.

It is ‘easier’ for the radiation to travel on the conductive exterior, and indeed, the conductive exterior works so as to in effect compel the radiation to take this route rather than to go inside, through, and outside the container again.

So, think of a nice old-fashioned metal biscuit tin with a close-fitting lid.  Instant Faraday cage!  Any type of metal container, of most reasonable shapes and sizes, will work perfectly well as a Faraday cage.

Tight mesh metal screens have sometimes been used as radio frequency shielding too.  We don’t recommend this approach because the wave-length of the energies released by an EMP tend to be shorter, and therefore might be small enough to ‘fit through’ the holes in the mesh.  Plus, unless you have excellent electrical connections at each node where the screen mesh running in one direction intersects with the screen mesh running at sort of right angles to it, you’ll end up with invisible gaps in your radiation blocking.  Best to play it safe and stick to solid metal.

As implied by the comment on screens and their lesser effectiveness, nothing is an absolute in this world, and a Faraday cage – even made out of thick 100% copper, won’t necessarily eliminate 100% of all the radiation.  A little bit might still ‘leak’ through into the inside.  But a well constructed Faraday cage will reduce the radiation inside itself to perhaps one millionth or less of the level of the radiation outside the container, and that is probably sufficient reduction (the technical term is ‘attenuation’) as to reduce the radiation level from a dangerous level that risks the integrity of your devices to a trivial level that poses no threat to them.

Faraday Cage Construction 1 – The Need for a Total Metal Enclosure

Don’t think that a container that has metal on some of its surrounding surfaces – maybe even as many as five of the six sides of a cube shape – will protect its contents.  A typical example of that would be some sort of metal container with a plastic lid.

Such a shape is not a cage at all – rather it could become a ‘wave guide’ which might funnel radiation through it and maybe even concentrate it in some essentially unpredictable manner.

The container needs to have as close to complete metal coverage as possible.  Small holes are okay, but the electromagnetic radiation can travel through holes and other cuts and slits in the container.  The bigger the hole, the more radiation that can go through it, exactly as you’d think if designing a container to block out light (which is also electromagnetic radiation) or to be waterproof.

So don’t, for example, go to Harbor Freight and buy a ‘stainless steel tool chest’ that actually only has some very thin pieces of stainless steel in the center of some of the tool chest’s sides, and plenty of plastic elsewhere.  It might be a great way to carry tools, but it is not useful as a Faraday Cage.

Faraday Cage Construction 2 – The Need for Good Electrical Joins

So maybe you’ve ended up with an enclosure that is metal on all sides.  That’s good, but there’s more to it than that.  Are all the sides connected to each other electrically?  If they are not, you again have a wave guide or possibly a radiation ‘concentrator’ rather than some sort of blocking cage, and might end up with worse outcomes than without an enclosure at all.

Make sure there is no varnish or other ‘invisible’ insulation on each of the metal surfaces.  And have good connections on all sides, as much as possible, so that the shortest physical distance from any point to any other point on the enclosure is also the same as the shortest electrical distance.  As soon as you start to require the radiation to go ‘the long way around’, you start to tempt it to take ‘a shortcut’ through the container rather than around it.

In simple terms, if you have a cube type shape, that means that each of the six sides of the cube should be physically and electrically connected to other sides of the cube on each of its four edges.  A ‘press fit’ is acceptable only if the two surfaces are each clean and not corroded (both dirt and corrosion are usually insulators rather than conductors).  You’ll of course have welded or soldered joins on most of the sides of the enclosure, with just its ‘lid’ being openable in some form, and you need to be sure that all four edges of the lid provide a positive seal and electrical connection.

An Essential but Usually Overlooked Requirement with Metal Tape

Now for an important consideration.  If you are sealing some sort of container, you probably know or can guess that you should use a metal foil type of tape to seal the container with.  Okay, but there’s a trick that many people don’t think through.  The typical adhesive on generic metal foil tape acts as an insulator.  It insulates the tape from whatever you are taping it onto, and also insulates the tape from itself (if you have tape overlapping itself).  This makes the metal foil tape close to useless.

Be sure to get tape that has conductive adhesive on it.  Needless to say, Amazon is your friend, and offers a wide range of different types of metal foil tape with conductive adhesive on it, as you can see from the link.  Better still, the material isn’t very expensive.

Do You Need to Ground Your Faraday Cage?

This is one of the most widely misunderstood aspects of Faraday Cage design and construction.  Faraday cages do not need to be grounded, indeed, as best we vaguely remember our advanced college physics classes, they should not be grounded.

You’ll see many prepper sites that say you should ground a Faraday Cage, but they either don’t say why, or say ‘to bleed off the charge’, or perhaps work on the semi-stated assumption that you ground other electrical things for safety and so, therefore, you should also ground a Faraday Cage.  This is all wrong.  Faraday Cages do not accumulate charge.  They simply allow a charge to pass from one side of them to the other, without passing ‘through’ the inside of the cage.

That process also points to why you should not ground a Faraday Cage.  If you ground the cage, it is no longer an isolated part of normal space that just so happens to be better conducting than the space inside it.  Now it has become an antenna of sorts, and even can be considered as a ‘magnet’ for the radiation.  Think of the process like a lightning rod – a lightning rod actually works by attracting lightning – it ‘pulls’ the lightning to itself rather than allowing the lightning to semi-randomly choose anywhere else to land.  The last thing you want is to change from a neutral Faraday cage to an active receiver of the radiation!  Instead of the EMF passing around your object, it now goes onto the object and travels along it and down to the ground.

Like all antennas, a grounded Faraday cage ceases to be a conductive material and instead starts to become a resonating material with inductive and capacitive properties, with some parts of its length having high resistance (impedance) and thereby potentially defeating the major concept of the cage – its ability to more effectively transfer EMF around its exterior rather than through its middle.  It will be itself absorbing and re-radiating some of the EMF it is now ‘receiving’ and conducting, and while we’re not exactly sure, we fear some of that transmission may be into itself and whatever is inside.

Think of it this way.  Planes get struck by lightning dozens of times every day, but nothing happens to them because the planes are essentially Faraday cages.  The lightning strikes the plane, travels around/through it, and then keeps on going.  But imagine if the plane had a big long antenna trailing off the end of it, all the way down to where it was dragging along the ground.  Now the plane has changed from being an electrically neutral thing that the lightning doesn’t ‘see’ or expend energy on, and instead becomes a huge big ‘magnet’ that draws lightning from miles around to it.

‘Nuff said?  Don’t ground your cage.  Not only don’t deliberately ground it, but also keep it away from any ‘accidental’ grounds – for example, don’t have it resting on solid earth or attached to any metal beams that might lead to the ground, and – whatever you do – please don’t have any electric wiring feeding into it!

Insulating the Contents from the Cage Walls

Something we often see overlooked in articles about Faraday cages is the need to insulate the contents from the cage walls.  When the cage is actually ‘doing its job’, those walls – both inside and outside the cage – are going to be alive with energy, and that energy will be eager to find anything and everything to flow into and fill.

If you think about what would happen if you had the contents actually touching the walls, there’s a chance you’d end up creating an electrical path through the cage that would be easier or almost as easy for the radiation to travel along as it is for the radiation to go around the outside of the cage.  The last thing you want to do is to encourage the radiation to come into your cage and move around.

We suggest you simply line the inside of your cage with thin foam – perhaps 1/4″ – 1/2″ thick.  That’s all you need to do – have some sort of light simply stand-off that keeps your electronics off the walls of the container.

Testing Your Faraday Cage

There are several ways you can test your Faraday Cage once you’ve constructed it.  Go somewhere with a very strong cell phone signal (such as right next to a nearby cell tower) and confirm you’ve all the bars on your phone showing max strength.

Put your phone in the cage and try calling it.  If you hear it ring, you know you’ve got a problem.

Next, place a call from your phone to someone else, then put the phone in the cage and close it up.  Does that cut off your call?  If it doesn’t, you again know you’ve got problems.

Try this with the phone and cage oriented in different directions (and with the phone either vertical or horizontal inside), in case radiation can get in one way but not another way.

Another test is to check for electrical continuity all the way around the cage.  With an ohm meter, set it on its lowest/most sensitive ohm scale and first calibrate it to zero ohms.  Then stick the probes on random parts of the cage, and ensure that everywhere you place the probes, you’re getting under a 1 ohm resistance reading.  Test a range of combinations from any side to any other side.

Those are the two easiest types of test to do.  Happily, there’s not really much of a trick to building a cage, and so there’s every good chance your cage will pass these tests.


Build yourself a Faraday cage – perhaps out of plumbing ductwork type thin metal sheeting that is easy to work and not too ridiculously heavy.  Follow the design considerations discussed above – perfect electrical and physical seal, nothing touching inside, outside not grounded, and you should have an effective way of protecting an essential set of spare electronic devices for WTSHTF.

Jul 292014
A single EMP pulse can cover the entire country with destructive EMF radiation.

A single EMP pulse can cover the entire country with destructive EMF radiation.

Paul Singer is CEO and founder of the Elliott Management hedge fund, looking after some $25 billion of client funds.

A self-made billionaire, he has a personal net worth of $1.5 billion, and his hedge fund is notable for only having had two down years in the 37 years he has been operating it.  It has averaged 14% annual return, compared to 10.8% for the S&P 500 as a whole.

He publicly warned about the housing crash and global financial crisis as early as 2006 and in 2007 met with the G7 finance ministers to warm them of the coming economic problems – a warning that was ignored by the politicians.

Clearly he knows a thing or two about managing and protecting assets, and about accurately predicting future risks, and people everywhere would be well advised to listen to his advice.

This week, in his standard investment update letter to his clients, he wrote

There is one risk that is head-and-shoulders above all the rest in terms of the scope of potential damage adjusted for the likelihood of occurrence.

You’ve probably already guessed what this risk is – this article headline gives the show away.  He tells his subscribers that a man-made EMP attack would be worse than nuclear war, asteroid strikes, or even a solar storm. :

It would not cause any blast or radiation damage, but such an attack would have consequences even more catastrophic than a severe solar storm.  It could not only bring down the grid, but also lay down a very intense, very fast pulse across the continent, damaging or destroying electronic switches, devices, computers and transformers across America.

He went on to call for a bipartisan push to make the country and the world safer from such risks.  He wants to see stockpiles of spare parts to repair/replace the key components of the electrical grid and other essential elements of our electronic society, and says the government and other groups should prepare emergency plans for how to respond to such events.

We’ve been writing about and worrying about EMP for years (check out our EMP articles here).

We’re not billionaires, and we don’t manage billions of dollars of other people’s money, either.  But, whether you’d rather listen to billionaire Mr Singer, or plain ordinary David Spero, the message is the same from us both :  A single EMP event could destroy most of the electrical and electronic functionality in the entire United States.

You need to plan and prepare for the possibility of an EMP and the destruction of our society that would surely follow.

One last comment.  It can be difficult explaining and validating our views and concerns when explaining prepping to other people.  You may find it useful to allow Mr Singer to ‘speak’ on your behalf.  Maybe your friends will find his advice more compelling.

Here’s the article that quotes from his investment newsletter.

Apr 232014
This artist's impression of the tens of thousands of people fleeing the 1871 Great Chicago Fire could become a modern day reality after uncontrollable fires break out following an EMP event.

This artist’s impression of the tens of thousands of people fleeing the 1871 Great Chicago Fire could become a modern-day reality after uncontrollable fires break out following an EMP event.

We wrote, just now, about how the director of two congressional advisory boards claimed that it is practical to protect against an EMP attack, and that the cost of this would be only $2 billion.

We believe him to be spectacularly wrong on both points, and you should read our article to see just how far off base he is.

Some of the newspaper reports, all of which uncritically repeat his quote, have widened their article to refer to another self-appointed EMP expert, Dr William Forstchen, who estimates that approximately half a million people would die in the first few moments after an EMP event.

Okay, so maybe he is correct about that.  Indeed, looking at the numbers in the article, if the 7,000 planes in the air at the time of an EMP event crash, and each plane has 150 people on board, then that is over 1 million people without considering however many casualties might also be incurred on the ground where the planes crash (probably not very many, actually, but that’s not the point we’re examining here).

His further point about fires breaking out, and not being controllable, is definitely true.  In the modern high-density city centers, and without any fire trucks or water, even small fires will quickly become multi-block unstoppable conflagrations.

So what is the point we’re seeking to make?  Simply this :  The deaths in the first few minutes after an EMP are relatively trivial and inconsequential, compared to the deaths in the days and weeks that follow.  Any article which talks about half a million deaths immediately after an EMP does the nation a disservice by not pointing out that tens of millions more people will die in the days and weeks after.

Why will so many people die after an EMP?  It isn’t as though an EMP creates any blast or heatwave, or even much nuclear radiation.  The problem is that when the EMP destroys much/most/all of our nation’s electronics, it therefore destroys all our support infrastructure.

Think about the most critical things we need to preserve human life.

Shelter – with no electricity, we no longer can heat or cool our homes.  For that matter, if we live in a high-rise, we can’t use the elevators any more, either.

Water – with no electricity, town water supplies can no longer treat the water they pump to us, and – oh yes, they can’t pump it to us, either.  (Note that the lack of pumping will also cause most sewer systems to fail, too.)

Food –  Many/most trucks and trains will fail due to the EMP.  Those that don’t fail will run out of diesel or electricity, and where will they get more?  The refineries will also be offline – their control circuitry will have been ‘fried’.  Without transportation, and without refrigeration, how will our supermarkets get restocked?

So, somewhere between a few days and a few weeks, people will start dying from lack of water, lack of food, and from general disease due to lack of drinkable water and sanitation.

People in the cities won’t be able to conveniently evacuate out of the cities, either because their cars will have failed (due to their onboard computers) or because they can’t buy gas to drive with, or perhaps because the roads are clogged with stalled/failed vehicles.

On the other hand, the probable complete breakdown of law and order that will quickly follow an EMP (imagine the police with no cruisers and no radios – they’ll be uncoordinated and unable to protect or control the cities and will quickly give up trying) will definitely motivate people to try and flee the cities and go somewhere safe.

Even if they could evacuate the cities, where would they go?  85% of our population now lives in cities, in situations where it is not possible to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient.  Our nation no longer grows enough food to support us, and that which we do grow relies upon mechanical production assistance – that too will have all failed.

So, yes, for sure we’ll see at least a half million people die in the first few minutes and hours after an EMP attack.  But that’s only the very tip of the top of the iceberg – how many more tens/hundreds of millions of people will die in the weeks and months immediately thereafter?

That is the true headline that urgently needs exposing and national discussion.

Now that we have you truly anxious, you can read more about EMP vulnerabilities here.

Apr 232014
A single EMP pulse can cover the entire country with destructive EMF radiation.

A single EMP pulse can cover the entire country with destructive EMF radiation.

There was apparent good news this week.

Peter Pry, executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and also director of the US Nuclear Strategy Forum – both congressional advisory boards – has been quoted this week as warning that the civilian world is not ready for an EMP attack, and describes the effects as catastrophic.

In case you’re unfamiliar with EMP, please see our article that explains EMP to understand how and why it is such a chilling threat to our modern world.

Anyway, back to Mr Pry.  Yes, we agree with both his statements.  So, what is the problem?

Well, after these comments, he then goes a bit off-target.  He is quoted as saying :

The problem is not the technology.  We know how to protect against it. It’s not the money, it doesn’t cost that much. The problem is the politics. It always seems to be the politics that gets in the way.

If you do a smart plan – the Congressional EMP Commission estimated that you could protect the whole country for about $2 billion.

Sounds very good, doesn’t it.  But, let’s actually think carefully about his two claims and see if they stand up to even some simplistic investigation.

1.  Protecting Against EMP Effects

First, let’s consider his claim that we know how to protect against EMP effects.

Well, that is sort of true, but it is true in the same manner, perhaps, that we ‘know’ how to protect against teenage pregnancies.  But, just as the ‘solutions’ to the problem of teenage pregnancies, while perfect in theory, have always colossally collapsed in reality and have proven to be completely impractical, so too do the ‘solutions’ to EMP effects have little application in the real world that the rest of us wish to live in.

Essentially, there are five possible solutions to EMP.  You choose the one you wish to adopt.

1.  Place every piece of at-risk electronics inside Faraday cages.  A Faraday cage is basically a metal box (ideally of iron or steel so as to protect against both electrical and magnetic energy), and electromagnetic energy goes around the box rather than through the box.  This therefore protects the items inside the box.

But, you can’t have wires going in or out of the Faraday cage.  If you did, then the wires provide pathways for the EMP effects to enter into the cage.  So, no external antennas (and internal antennas will be blocked by the cage) which effectively makes all radio type gear useless.  Plus, yes, where will power come from to power the devices inside the cages?  And so on and so on.

Faraday cages can indeed fairly protect some types of electronics, but not everything.  Have a look around your home and your office.  Everything from your phones (wired or wireless) to your calculator to your digital clock and watch, to your oven and stove top and microwave, to the thermostat that controls your heating – yes, pretty much everything – is at risk from EMP effects.  How much of all of this can you put in Faraday cages?

2.  The next ‘solution’ is to ‘harden’ your electronics to make them less vulnerable to EMP effects.  Hardening will reduce the certainty that your electronics will get fried by EMPs, but does not zero it out.  Think of it a bit like making your watch water-resistant, or your jacket ‘showerproof’.

Hardening is essentially something that is done in the design and construction of something; it is not something that can be subsequently added on.  Hardening requires adding various types of filters and chokes, separating out components, and using special components that have been designed to be more robust when confronted with EMF induced voltage spikes (ie from an EMP).

Hardened equipment is unavoidably bulker and heavier than regular equipment, and so is seldom ever encountered in consumer grade electronics, which place a premium on being as small and compact as possible.

3.  You could replace all your high-tech gear with low tech gear.  Instead of fancy digital phones, you could use old-fashioned rotary dial phones – well, maybe you could, if your phone exchange still supports rotary dialing (and if the phone exchange itself will survive the EMP event!).  You could replace your new transistorized digital radio with an old vacuum tube powered radio (which will be much more dependent on mains power than your low current low voltage digital radio), and again, what use is a radio if there are no surviving radio stations.

We’re not quite sure what you could replace your iPad or computer with, and what point would there be, when the entire internet will collapse.

4.  You could adapt instead to a life with zero technology.  But in that case, is the ‘cure’ worse than the problem?  Imagine a life with no electricity, no cable, no internet.  Oh yes, also without water or sewer, too.  This isn’t really a solution at all, is it.

5.  The fifth approach is to keep a spare set of everything essential you might need in a future ‘grid down’ scenario.  But if you do this, you need to store them inside Faraday cages.  Just leaving them switched off is not sufficient – the on/off switch in anything merely controls the flow of electrical power, it doesn’t physically disconnect circuitry from itself and from potential antennas that would collect and feed/funnel the EMP energy into the unit.

There is another problem with this strategy.  While it is great good sense to keep spares of everything essential, it also begs the question – how many spares do you keep?  What happens if an EMP occurs, and you smile to yourself, break out your spares, and are back to normal functioning (albeit without any external support resources such as electricity or the internet), but then, a couple of hours later, a second EMP event occurs.  Do you have a third set of everything also kept as spares for the spares?  A fourth set for another layer of spares?

It seems reasonable to assume that if a foreign nation chooses to attack us with an EMP, they would have the resources, sense and willpower to do the equivalent of a double-flush – first one EMP to do as much damage as possible, then a second event some hours later to destroy all the reserve equipment now being pressed into service.

US DoD doctrine says to expect multiple EMP attacks, not just one (see the Field Manual, referenced below).

No Man is an Island

One more thought on this point before moving on to the second fallacy in Mr Pry’s strange statement.  Even if you reduce your own vulnerability to EMP-effects, what good does that do you?

Maybe your own electronics are intact, but if the power grid is down, you have no electricity to power them.  Maybe your car’s several dozen computers also successfully made it through the EMP event, but if the gas pumps at the gas station don’t work – both due to no electricity and also due to their own electronics being fried – how much use is your car to you?  And how would you pay for the gas, even if you could get it?  The banking system will be down, card readers won’t work, and you probably only have a day or two of cash in your pocket.

Oh yes, the roads will probably be blocked anyway, with less fortunate cars just stalling in the middle of the lanes they were in at the time.  Think of the chaos from a sudden winter snow-storm, then multiply it, to get an idea for how driveable the roads will be.

The EMP risk is not just a risk to ourselves personally, it is a risk to all the infrastructure about us that we rely upon in our lives, but which we can’t control.

2.  A $2 Billion Cost?

Mr Pry says it would cost $2 billion to protect the whole country against EMP effects.  Now, to me, and probably to you too, $2 billion is an unthinkable amount of money, and we could do many enormous things with such a huge sum.

But, to the government, $2 billion is nothing.  It represents little more than $6 per person in the country.  The government’s total budget for 2013 was $3.5 trillion, 1700 times more than $2 billion.  Sure, this suggests that the $2 billion is affordable, but it is also negligible.  We spent $8.2 billion on the Army Corps of Civil Engineers, $18 billion on NASA, $35 billion on the Energy Department, and $673 billion on defense.

Two specific examples.  California is currently planning to spend almost $100 billion on a fast train service between San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento.  A new air traffic control system for the country is projected to cost somewhere between $40 billion and $120 billion (no-one seems quite sure exactly how much).

So tell me, if you can, how we can’t build 1,000 miles of train for less than $100 billion, and we can’t redo our country’s air traffic control system for less than a similar cost, but we could protect all the gazillions of vulnerable pieces of electronic equipment for a mere $2 billion?

A $2 Trillion Cost to Fix just Part of the Problem

Oh – we forgot to mention, and apparently Mr Pry forgot this, too.  One of the biggest vulnerabilities to EMP is our national electricity distribution grid (click the link for one of our articles on this topic).

If the grid failed, it could take years to restore (if for no other reason, due to the lead times to get new transformers made and delivered).  The cost of hardening the grid?  According to this 2012 article, probably $1.5 – $2 trillion dollars.

So, please, make a case – if you can – for how, with $2 trillion to harden the electrical distribution network alone, we can harden that and the rest of the nation’s infrastructure too, for only $2 billion.

This $2 billion claim is beyond unbelievable.  Why does Pry make this claim?  For that matter, why does he also say that EMP attacks can be defended against in the first place?

Both claims seem to be total utter nonsense.

A Useful Reference Guide

The US Army Field Manual 3-3-1 has a useful appendix in it (Appendix C) that gives information on EMP.  You can download it here.

Unfortunately, the manual is twenty years old and there is no sign of an updated edition having been released.  Much of the material in it is based on studies and ‘state of the art’ design that is even older still.  While the nature of an EMP effect has of course not changed much in the intervening 20 years (there are some suggestions that the former ‘limit’ on the maximum power of an EMP, caused by over-saturating the atmosphere with radiation, may have now been resolved, allowing for even higher powered devices with more severe effects) there have been enormous changes in technology.

The FM appendix repeatedly refers to the frequency of EMP radiation and ties that to being of greatest risk to radios that transmit/receive on the same frequencies, but understandably fails to consider the implications of one of the biggest changes in the last 20 years – the ever greater miniaturization of our electronics.  As our chips get smaller and smaller and more densely packed with components, the separation between each part of the components gets smaller and smaller, meaning that the voltage level needed for a ‘flash over’ between one component and the next has gone down and down proportionally.

When the manual was written, typical distances inside chips were in the order of 750 – 1000 nanometers (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter).  Today, distances are 15 – 20 nanometers – 50 times smaller.  Densities of components are even more staggeringly enhanced – in 1994, a Pentium chip had something slightly in excess of 3 million transistors on it, today, an Xbox One main chip has 5 billion transistors on it.

All electronic devices are therefore massively more vulnerable than they were in 1994.

It is also important to realize, as the manual itself hints at, this is an unclassified manual written with an eye to who else will be reading it, in both friendly and unfriendly places.  The manual is therefore more likely to put a positive spin on things, rather than say ‘If an EMP occurs, we’ve lost the battle before it starts’.

So, by all means read it, and learn from it, but appreciate its limitations and how the world has changed since then as well.

Aug 012013
A solar storm such as this, if it hits the earth, could destroy much/most of all our electronics.

A solar storm such as this, if it hits the earth, could destroy much/most of all our electronics.

Of all the risks we anticipate and prep for, an EMP event is perhaps the most terrifying.  A single well-placed EMP bomb could destroy much/most of the electronics in the entire US – oh, and in most of Canada too, resulting in an instant collapse of almost everything.

EMP events can come from two different sources.  One is a deliberate act by an aggressor nation or terrorist group, launching a specific EMP causing device and activating it high above the US.  This is, unfortunately, very much easier to do than you might think – an EMP device is nothing more than a regular atomic bomb on a regular ICBM, possibly with some modifications to enhance its EMP yield, and detonated at high altitude rather than close to the ground.

The other source is at least as fickle as the first, and whereas there have been no deliberate EMP attacks by people, this other source has attacked us repeatedly with EMP events.  We refer, of course, to the sun.

The sun is not a steady constant energy source.  Like a regular fire, it has variable hot spots and cold spots, and sort of analogous to a fire sometimes sparking out some embers that might land on our carpet, so too does the sun sometimes eject massive bursts of energy that have the same EMP effects on electronics.  We talk about the dangers of solar storms in a series of articles here.

There have been solar storms in the past that were sufficiently strong to destroy electronics, but they have happily occurred prior to our current total dependence on micro-miniaturized electronics.  The most significant past event that we’re aware of was in 1859, and was so extreme that it melted telegraph wires across Europe and North America.  We can only guess as to how many past events there have been, because prior to about that time, there were no electrical devices for solar storms to affect.

If a solar storm similar to the 1859 event occurred now, it would of course destroy much of the world’s electronics.

In order for this to occur, two things need to both be in place.  The first, of course, is for a sufficiently strong solar storm to erupt.  The second is for this solar storm to intercept the earth in its orbit.

The good news is that it requires an unusually large solar storm to do the sort of damage we need to be concerned about, and the further good news is that the earth is a tiny spec, 93 million miles from the sun.  Most storms pass harmlessly by, and come nowhere near the earth.

But, as we know, sometimes they don’t miss.  Sometimes, as in 1859, they do intercept the earth.  A not so strong smaller storm also hit (but only parts of Canada) in 1989.

Sooner or later, a massive sized solar storm will hit the earth again, and it will destroy much/most of our society’s infrastructure.  When will this occur?

No-one knows the answer to that, any more than anyone can tell you how many times you need to roll a pair of dice before you get a double-six.  But we do know, as this article reports, that just a couple of weeks ago we narrowly missed a solar storm that would have destroyed us, and as we report in this earlier article, experts say there is a 12% chance of being hit by such a storm sometime in the next ten years.

Oh, and as we report in this article, 2013 is a year of greater than normal solar storm activity.

Back to the dice.  We don’t know when we’ll get the double-six, but we do know that it will appear sooner or later.  Similarly, we don’t know when the next 1859 style solar storm will hit us, but we do know that, sooner or later, it will.  Emphasize the sooner, because experts suggest there’s one chance in eight (ie 12%) it will happen in the next decade.  How lucky do you feel?

Tell that to your friends the next time they poke fun at your prepping.  Depending on where you live, there’s more chance of a solar storm induced EMP destroying every part of their lives than there is of an earthquake, tsunami, or volcano.  Many people fear these other types of relatively minor and essentially regional disasters; perhaps it is because the EMP event is so huge that it overloads our ability to comprehend the consequences and we find it easier to ignore it than to confront it.

That’s why we are preppers.  We choose to confront these challenges and prepare for them.  We should encourage our friends and family to do the same.

Dec 162012
Our amazingly convenient and increasingly essential GPS service is also terribly vulnerable to five different forms of attack.

Our amazingly convenient and increasingly essential GPS service is also terribly vulnerable to five different forms of attack.

We offer this report to you not as an example of how the world as we know it might end, but just as another example of how the more sophisticated the systems and services we surround ourselves with, the more vulnerable we become.  The convenience they offer us blinds us to the added degree of dependence on which our lives and life styles are based.

Back in the ‘good old days’ – ie before ubiquitous GPS, people would go places based on maps.  Remember the annual Rand McNally books of maps?  And remember how they’d pressure us into buying a new one every year, due to ‘50,000 changes since last year’s edition’ or something like that?  Remember also buying (or being given!) maps at the gas station?

Do you even have a map book now?  For many of us, the answer is no.

Now – here’s the thing.  Your map book was failure-proof.  Apart from leaving it behind, or the dog eating it, it couldn’t fail, right?  Maybe it wasn’t the most convenient way to navigate your way from Point A to Point B, but it always worked.

If we go off-road, we might formerly have augmented our maps with a compass as well.  A compass relies on the earth’s magnetic field, and although there are some thoughts that the magnetic field could flip around some time in the next some thousands of years, for our lifetimes, it is probably safe to say the earth’s magnetic field is about as reliable a thing as the sun rising in the east every morning and setting in the west each night.  Apart from the compass itself breaking, the underlying principle of compasses is 100% reliable, and compasses themselves are relatively easy to repair or improvise in an emergency.  A compass is a perfect low tech device that relies on nothing external to operate.  It doesn’t even require any electricity.

Nowadays, maps and compasses have been superseded by digital GPS units that rely on signals from satellites in space, 12,000 or so miles away that the units use to calculate their position, their heading, their altitude, and their velocity.  Unfortunately, those signals are vulnerable to interference, and the receiver units are vulnerable not only to jammed signals but also to fake signals that can upset their logic and calculations.

This article tells of how researchers at Carnegie Mellon University created a device that cost no more than $2500 to build, and which caused every GPS unit it then broadcast a signal towards, to crash and cease operating.

Puzzlingly the article’s lede says that up to 30% of GPS receivers could be taken offline by one of these units.  The puzzle is – where did the ‘up to 30%’ come from, when every unit tested was made to crash?  Shouldn’t the article say ‘100%’?  Or would that be too frightening for the general public?

Maybe the 30% figure means that a single 45 second broadcast from one of these $2500 devices would disable 30% of all GPS units, everywhere on the planet.  In other words, position the device in the center of the US, turn it on, and in less than a minute, every GPS receiver in or above the US, or in the waters around the country, will crash.

Never mind.  The purpose of our commentary is simply to point out how something that has become so ubiquitous and almost essential (not so much for our navigating between home and work each day, but for ships at sea and airplanes in the sky, especially if flying through or above clouds) and also now very much taken for granted, is also something terribly vulnerable to electronic attack.

Indeed, there are five different vulnerabilities that GPS units suffer.  The first is an attack on the GPS satellites.  If an enemy power was able to destroy some or most of the satellites, our receivers would no longer have enough satellites to lock onto and calculate a reliable position from.

The second vulnerability is from EMP attack – an EMP pulse would likely destroy the electronics in most GPS receivers.

The third vulnerability is having the GPS signal jammed.  That is very easy to do.  The GPS satellites have very weak radio transmitters which are also far away from the receivers (about 25W transmitters, which are 12,000 and more miles away from the receiver), and so stronger transmitters that are closer can easily obscure the ‘real’ GPS signal and confuse the receiver as to where it is.

The fourth vulnerability is GPS spoofing.  Instead of just jamming the real GPS signal with random jamming ‘noise’, a sophisticated enemy can replace the weak real GPS signal with a stronger overriding fake GPS signal that makes the GPS receiver think it is somewhere else.  This type of technique has been used by terrorist cells to take over our reconnaissance drones.

The fifth vulnerability is sending confusing signals that cause the micro-processor inside the receiver to crash – the vulnerability the article discusses.

Note that the researchers concede that a determined attacker faces no huge obstacles (to mounting an attack that would cripple the world’s GPS).

Implications for Preppers

This teaches us two things.  The first thing is that we can’t take anything for granted.  Although GPS seems stable, mature, and ultra-reliable, it has five different forms of vulnerability which could be exploited at any time.  Sure, losing GPS across the country won’t threaten a plunge into a nightmarish level 3 situation, and we’re not suggesting it would.  But if something so stable and certain and safe as GPS is actually totally vulnerable to attack, what else is out there that could also be similarly vulnerable?

The second teaching point here is that as preppers we need to have backup systems and solutions that are low-tech rather than high-tech.  An EMP type attack is a real danger, and if such an event were to occur, we – and the rest of the country – would suddenly find that 95% of our electronics had failed.

Are you prepared to convert your existence to one with no electronics and no electricity?  Unless and until you can say ‘yes’ to that, you’re not truly prepared.

Jul 262012

A look inside a metal ‘Faraday Cage’ storeroom designed to reduce the effects of an EMP attack on the equipment stored inside it.

Perhaps the most terrifying threat to the US from other nations is that posed by an EMP attack.  In an earlier article we explained how an EMP attack could destroy all the electronics in the US, literally sending us back almost to the stone age, in a fraction of a second.

There is no effective defense against an EMP attack; there’s nothing we can do in our homes to protect against the effects of an EMP detonation, a thousand or more miles away.  It may be possible to stockpile spare electronics, stored in special Faraday Cage type containers, so as to reduce the damaging effects of an EMP on the devices stored inside, but pretty much any electronics that are not stored that way, whether they are switched on or not at the time, are vulnerable and liable to be destroyed by an EMP.

Note that Faraday cages are not perfect barriers to EMP radiation.  They should be thought of as something like soundproofing – soundproofing panels quieten outside noises, but loud sounds can still be heard, and very loud sounds can still be bothersome.  It is the same with Faraday cages, and ‘best practice’ seems to suggest having nested Faraday cages, one inside the other (inside the other), which is analogous to having multiple layers of soundproofing panels.

As we said in our earlier article, the devastating impact of an EMP attack, and the near impossibility of protecting against it, surely make this a very attractive weapon, particularly for countries much smaller than the US – countries which have no chance of winning any type of conventional war against us.  We’ve no idea who would win and who would lose (probably both nations would lose) if we ended up in a high intensity conflict against Russia or China, and surely a nuclear war against these powers would guarantee that all combatants would suffer appalling losses.  On the other hand, we are certain we would prevail if in a conventional war with, for example, India or Pakistan or Iran or North Korea.

So what should a country that wishes us ill, or who simply wishes to have a credible threat to use as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table, do?  These small countries have no ability to create the economic and personnel elements of a credible conventional threat, but perhaps they can instead spend a relatively small amount of money to create an EMP type weapon that instantly gives the country that developed it an equality of force with us.

Indeed, the EMP device probably gives other countries the upper hand.  Iran or North Korea, for example, have predominantly low tech and low energy based economies.  The sudden loss of electronics and electricity would not be as damaging for such countries as it would be for the United States.  Sure, it would be harmful, but it wouldn’t be associated with the complete destruction of society that such an attack would have on the US.

So, is it any surprise then to read, in this article, that North Korea is believed to be developing EMP weapons – indeed, the article refers to a new type of super-EMP bomb.  This is an EMP device designed to get past the usual ‘limit’ of EMP field intensity which is typically caused when the atmosphere gets saturated with EMP related particles.

A super-EMP bomb might potentially have two to five times greater impact than a regular one, meaning that so-called ‘hardened’ devices which can resist certain moderate EMF strengths from regular EMP bombs may also be destroyed, and devices stored in Faraday cages may also be damaged or destroyed, too.  A super-EMP bomb does not necessarily have any more range, just greater power within its existing range, but seeing as how a single EMP bomb is almost sufficient, in itself, to take out the entire US, range is not so much an issue.

Talking about range, that points to one error in the article.  The article talks about North Korea potentially using an EMP device against South Korea.  Unless it were to be a conventionally powered device with weak limited range and directional output, this is very unlikely, because a nuclear powered EMP device would almost certainly destroy all of North Korea’s electronics too.

An EMP weapon, while perhaps not much use against South Korea, definitely would be transformational in terms of North Korea’s ability to ‘punch above its weight’ on the world stage.

The news item concludes with a massive understatement quote from an EMP expert, who says

Rogue states or terrorists armed with a single nuclear weapon detonated at high-altitude over the United States could cause a protracted blackout nationwide, that would last months or years and might even be unrecoverable.

Note that Bill Gertz’ columns in the Washington Times are generally considered to be very authoritative, and often represent unofficial statements from senior US military officials who wish to leak information.

Jul 132012

Our national grid relies on 2100 of these mammoth – and in many respects, irreplaceable – transformers.

We regularly worry in our articles about a failure of our nation’s electricity grid – the criss-crossing network of power lines that connect the various power generating facilities around the country with the various power consuming facilities – most particularly, the major switching substations that route the highest voltage connections around the country.

Think of the power grid a bit like a transportation network.  We have super-highways, regular freeways, highways, arterials, surface roads, minor roads, cul-de-sacs and so on.  For example, to drive from home to work, you first leave your driveway, maybe go down a residential street, then to a more heavily trafficked street, then to a major arterial, then onto a freeway, then through an interchange and onto another freeway, then off, via various surface streets, and ending up in the parking garage underneath your office.

It is the same thing with the movement of power across the country.  Power originates in a generating station, then travels to a switching station where it then joins a ‘super highway’; it travels across the country, and perhaps goes through some interchanges as it changes ‘freeways’, then starts to feed down through surface streets and their intersections, until ending up coming in to your own household.

The key points of vulnerability to the power network are not the thousands of miles of power line.  It is the ‘interchanges’ – the switching stations.  The power is useless and meaningless in the power lines – it only has value if it can pass through all the ‘interchanges’ and ‘intersections’ and complete its journey at your light switch and light.

Our Power Grid is a Mismatch of Incompatible Components

Unlike our national interstate system (and also unlike the internet), there aren’t a huge number of different routes power can travel to the people who need it.  And not every different path is fully compatible with every other different path.

There are 2100 major high voltage transformers (consider them as freeway interchanges) and in total, the nation’s power grid is operated not by a single authority or even by a coalition of half a dozen major players (as is the case with the internet, for example) but instead by an assortment of some 5,000 different entities, most of whom are competing with each other.

Furthermore, these 2,100 transformers aren’t all the same and interchangeable.  An industry rule of thumb says that for every 13 transformers, you’ll encounter ten different designs.

Unsurprisingly, all these different pieces fit together somewhat clumsily.  For example, this article talks some more about the vulnerability of the power grid to solar storms.

Repairing a Damaged Grid is Difficult

A retail chain, some years ago, had a famous and very successful slogan – ‘It is the putting right that counts’.  The key concern, with our power grid vulnerability, really is not so much the vulnerability itself (although that is of course a concern too) but rather ‘the putting right’ – restoring electrical service to the nation if/when it is disrupted.  If power can be restored in a matter of hours, then it is hardly life changing.  But if a grid failure could lead to many years without any power at all, then clearly it becomes a matter of highest national strategic importance.

Unfortunately, for anything other than very minor disruptions, restoring the grid becomes a huge and lengthy problem.  The main reason for this?  The US no longer makes high voltage transformers itself.

These days, if we want a new high voltage transformer, we have to order it from an Asian (ie Chinese) manufacturer and wait for it to be built then shipped to us.  Due to their size and weight, they can’t be airfreighted.  A new transformer can weigh up to 200 tons, and they are too large to be trucked to their ultimate destination – they have to travel on special flat-bed rail wagons (and these rail wagons are in short supply, too).

The need to ship by rail adds another dimension to the problem of replacing transformers – as our nation’s rail network shrinks and shrivels, many places that formerly had rail lines leading directly to them have lost their track, leaving different remaining distances for the transformers to somehow be transported from the nearest railhead to the switching power station where it is needed.

Because transformers normally last for about 50 years, and because in much of the developed world, there’s only modest ongoing growth in power consumption, there’s not a lot of manufacturing capacity.  Only 2% of transformers need to be replaced each year, and usually these replacements are planned well in advance.  Most power companies and most manufacturers don’t keep an inventory of spare transformers – a problem made worse by the lack of standardization of transformers.

It is generally accepted that a new order for a transformer will take around 3 years for it to be made and shipped.  If there was a rush on transformer replacements (eg after a solar storm damaged many) then the first 2% of transformers could be made in 3 years, the next 2% would have to wait another year, and so on and so on.  It could take as much as a decade to replace a major series of transformer failures.

And this decade guesstimate assumes that the Chinese manufacturers dedicate all their capacity to our country’s needs, and also assumes they urgently expand their production capabilities.  Can we really rely on other countries such as China – countries that don’t necessarily have our best interests closely at heart and inseparably aligned with ours – to help us when we’re at our most vulnerable?

This article details some more about transformer issues.

Storm Related Outages Are Different

Maybe you’ve had a power outage yourself – perhaps after a windstorm, or perhaps due to some inexplicable thing that you never really were told exactly what it was.  Maybe it was just for a few minutes, maybe it was for a week or longer, and maybe the outage was limited to only a half dozen houses, or maybe it extended over a half dozen states.

Outages are nothing new, indeed, on average, half a million power customers have some type of outage every day.

But – and here’s the catch.  These outages are very different to the ones we are considering.  They are typically due to power poles being blown over, or trees falling on the power lines, or, at worst, a very minor substation transformer blowing.

Fixing these outages simply requires a crew to re-run the power lines, or to truck in another transformer, and maybe to shift some loads in some parts of the grid.

These outages – even when extending over several states – are not due to one, or ten, or a hundred or more of the 2,100 major super-transformers failing, and so are easy to respond to and resolve.

But if we do lose a number of the super-transformers all in close succession, we have nothing to replace them with.  We can’t restore power until we get new super-transformers, some years later.

Not Just Solar Related Dangers – Hackers Too

In addition to the random acts of the sun’s solar storms, we also have to consider more directed attacks on our power grid – manmade attacks.

The easiest way to disrupt the power grid is of course simply to physically blow up transformers.  With only 2,100 key transformers in total, and only a small percentage of those needing to be disabled to impact on many millions of people, and little or no effective security protecting the super-transformers, it is far from unthinkable that terrorists might attempt a low-tech old-fashioned bombing campaign to destroy a region’s power network.

But that is, indeed, a low-tech and old-fashioned approach, and not without difficulty and risk to the terrorists.  A much easier approach is to hack into the control systems – the computers that control the operation of the transformers and the flow of power across the network.

While some commentators say ‘it is not possible to do this’ and promise us that the control computers are secure, they are, alas, talking nonsense.  It serves their purposes to downplay the extent of the risk and the vulnerabilities that are already being exploited, but when you can get people to talk more frankly, for example as reported in this Wall St Journal article, the truth is scary.  Not only are our power control computer networks vulnerable, but they have already been hacked into and compromised.

This is unsurprising.  It seems there is no computer on the planet which is not now connected to the internet, and if we and the Israelis can hack into Iran’s nuclear research and development computers and take them over, causing the computers to run amok and destroy the centrifuges they are controlling, surely other nations can do the same to us.  We’re not the only nation with precocious teenage hackers by any means.

Although the April 2009 Wall St Journal article we linked to immediately above reported – as all such articles do – on how steps are being taken to improve the security of the power grid, here’s a December 2011 article in the Christian Science Monitor headlined ‘Power Grid grows more vulnerable to attack’.

The article quotes an MIT study which suggests that the electrical utilities are creating new vulnerabilities faster than they are patching old ones.  The good news is the cost of improving the grid’s cyber-security is low – about $4 billion.  The bad news – the utilities feel that the possibility of being attacked is too low to worry about, and not worth spending $4 billion to protect against.

The MIT report disagrees and views cyber-attacks on the grid as inevitable.  It isn’t a case of if, it is a case of when.

An interesting related thought – the Wall St Journal article mentioned that some of the cyber-attacks have come from China.  What happens if the Chinese destroy our transformers, then refuse to sell us replacement ones?

More Risks – EMP

We explain what EMP type attacks are, here.

In the specific context of power grids, they have two vulnerabilities in the event of an EMP attack.  The first is the E1 pulse, which could destroy many or all of the control computers that manage the electricity grid.  If the controlling computers go down, so too does the grid.

The second vulnerability is the E3 component, which would be received through the power lines acting as gigantic antennas, and then directed into the transformers and destroying them.

As we discuss in the next section, our grid has become more vulnerable to solar storms; and the mechanism which creates a vulnerability from solar storms is identical to the E3 component effects of an EMP.

How Severe a Problem Are the Grid’s Vulnerabilities?

Opinions differ as to the extent of the vulnerabilities that relate to our power grid.

At one extreme are reports such as this article in Time, which says ‘because we’ve never had a total disruption before, there’s no danger of one in the future’.  That’s brilliant logic, isn’t it, and sadly consistent with much of the non-prepper mindset.

The article goes on to say ‘Don’t worry, all essential services have backup power supplies’.  We don’t find that very reassuring.  Just a week ago, Amazon’s web services had a power related outage.  What happened to their backup power supplies?  We’ve no idea, but we do know that Amazon’s terms of service specifically exempt them from liability in the case of power supply failure.

We also know that the state of the art ultra-sophisticated super-hardened colocation facility where our primary webserver is located has also suffered power failures in the past too, even though they have more in the way of backup systems and redundancies than any two normal computing centers would have.

We wonder further what happens when the backup diesel generators run out of diesel.  If there’s a regional outage of power, there’ll be no diesel being refined, shipped, or pumped.

And, anyway, while it might be a reassuring thought, to some people, that hospitals and internet services can survive for a month or two, what about us?  There’s no backup power supply for regular consumers.  How long can we personally survive, how long can businesses survive, without power?

As well as unrealistically optimistic articles like the Time story above, we also have more soberly realistic articles such as this in Scientific American, which talks about how if a solar storm which occurred in 1921, causing only minimal damage then, was to re-occur now, the result would be a loss of 300 of the super-transformers and  130 million people being without power for years.

Part of the reason we are more vulnerable to such natural impacts is due to the changing nature of our power grid.  We have more and longer runs of power lines now than we did before – in the last 50 years the total length of power line in the country has increased ten-fold, and the average length of each highest capacity line has grown four-fold.  This four-fold increase in length makes it a better ‘antenna’ to receive the electro-magnetic interference from the sun, and for this interference to then overload and burn out the transformers.

The 2011 Scientific American article also says that NASA now has vital early warning capabilities.  We suggest that is an over-optimistic statement – as this article of ours, written a year later in July 2012 points out, NASA and NOAA are still unable to consistently predict and agree upon solar impacts.  In other words, even the more realistic articles are still showing themselves as being overly optimistic.


The security of our nation’s power grid is a bit like the security of our front door.  Hopefully you’ve never had burglars break into your home.  And you lock your door.  But you know in your heart of hearts that the lock doesn’t really give you true security.

A determined burglar will pick the lock or kick the door out of its frame, and be inside in less time than it takes to read this paragraph.  And a runaway vehicle that crashes into your front door at 60 mph is going through it, lock or not.

That sums up the ‘security’ of our power grid.  A determined hacker/terrorist, or a severe natural event, could destroy it in a flash.  Much or all of the country could suddenly find itself with no power, and the restoration of power could take 5 – 10 years to complete.

We’re not going to guess as to if a grid failure will be due to malicious deliberate attacks by our enemies, or by the awesome natural power of the sun, or through some other random act of chance.

But we do view the risk of a catastrophic long-term widespread failure of our power grid as severe, and creating either a long-term Level 2 or possibly even a full Level 3 situation.  Your response to such a threat has to involve abandoning the city you probably live in now and moving to a safe and sustainable rural retreat.

Jun 202012

This is what an EMP explosion would look like from a distance – widespread red air glow and dark clouds.

Those of you in the Seattle area probably associate the letters EMP with Paul Allen’s quirky Experience Music Project at the Seattle Center.  But that’s most definitely not what we’re sharing with you now.

We’re talking, instead, about electromagnetic pulses – a type of radiation burst typically created by the detonation of a nuclear device high above the earth, which creates electrical and magnetic fields capable of destroying just about any and all modern electronics over a huge area.

In today’s society, totally dependent on the ongoing functioning of the electrical and electronic devices that have become essential to every element of our survival, an EMP event would be as close to a total – and instantaneous – doomsday scenario as is anything else imaginable, likely or unlikely.

Let’s talk about what an EMP is, how destructive it could be, and why it is of great appeal to enemy powers and terrorist groups.  A subsequent article will talk about what measures we can take to protect us from the worst effects of an EMP attack.

What an EMP Is

Typically, nuclear weapons are detonated either below ground (bunker busting type bombs), at ground level, or, for generally most optimum results, at very low altitude so as to create the largest blast radius and maximum damage.  That is bad for us if we are nearby at the time, but the good news, for everyone else, is that these events don’t create measurable and widespread EMP effects.

But if a nuclear device is detonated 50+ miles up into the atmosphere, a very different set of consequences flows through to us on the ground.

The good news now is that the blast effects of the explosion may be close to negligible.  But the bad news is that the device will create a massive EMP effect, extending out over a much larger area.

Although we talk of an EMP event as if it were a single thing, there are actually three components to an EMP.

The first component is called the E1 pulse.  When the bomb goes off, it releases a burst of gamma radiation.  This gamma radiation knocks electrons out of air molecules in the upper atmosphere, about 60,000 – 125,000 ft above the earth’s surface.

The electrons start to speed away and generally downwards, away from the force of the gamma radiation.  But these charged particles then interact with the earth’s magnetic field before colliding with other atoms/molecules in the atmosphere.

This interaction with the magnetic field sets up the E1 electro-magnetic component of the overall EMP effect.  This is the part that generates the zapping/electronic destroying effects.

The entire E1 event occurs very quickly, with particles traveling at close to the speed of light (186,000 miles every second).  From start to finish is typically less than one thousandth of a second (and usually so fast – and so powerful – that any protective/overload circuits either don’t have time to respond or are overwhelmed by the strength of the pulse).

But wait, there’s more.

The relatively good news is that the E2 component is relatively mild, and produces effects similar to interference caused by lightning flashes in a thunderstorm.  It lasts up to a second.

The problem with the E2 pulse is the E1 pulse that happened immediately prior to the E2 pulse has probably zapped protective devices like surge protectors, and so whereas the E2 pulse, by itself, would do little damage, when it follows an E1 pulse that has most likely zapped out all the protective devices, it becomes more dangerous.  If anything survived the E1 pulse, it is now at risk of the E2 pulse effects.

And now for the third component, which you can probably guess is called, of course, the E3 component.

This is a much slower effect, lasting potentially five or more minutes.  It is the result of the nuclear blast ‘pushing’ the earth’s magnetic field out of its normal alignment, and then the magnetic field returning back to its normal alignment (we hope!).

This effect is similar to that caused by a solar storm.  The E3 pulse is less dangerous to micro-electronics, but it is a huge problem for devices connected to ‘long conductors’ – think power and phone lines, and damage to power switching substations and the like.

There are other effects too, primarily to do with the atmosphere’s ability to absorb or reflect radio waves, and these can go on for some hours, but are of less direct impact for most of us and provide little long-term harm to anyone or anything.

So add it all up and you have the 1-2 knockout blow from the E1 and E2 pulses to destroy small electrical and electronic devices, and then the E3 pulse comes along to destroy high voltage/high current devices like the power grid’s transformers and other control circuitry.

We end up with no electronics and no power either.

The Range of an EMP

Because an EMP device is detonated way high in the atmosphere, it can ‘see’ a very long way to its horizon – the point where the earth’s curvature protects the rest of the earth from its destructive effects.

An EMP also has a surprisingly constantly strong effect over huge areas.  It isn’t like the effects of a normal explosion that rapidly gets weaker as you get further away from it.  This is because the close in areas to the EMP detonation point are sort of maxed out (due to the atmosphere getting overloaded from all the gamma radiation and ‘shorting itself out’).

The EMP pattern is also not symmetrical, because it interacts with the earth’s magnetic field.  The gamma ray burst out of the bomb is probably symmetrical, but the electromagnetic field created by the electrons released by the gamma rays tend to spread out in a semi-circle directed towards the equator.

One single detonation, about 250 miles above the earth, and at a point more or less midway along the border between North and South Dakota would distribute dangerous levels of EMP pulse across almost the entire US.  California, Florida, and the Eastern seaboard would be in fringe areas, as you can see on this map.

This shows the spread of energy levels from an EMP pulse; the numbers are a measure of electrical strength in Volts/meter.


Note that the uncolored outer parts of the map are not free of EMP effects.  Instead, they simply have lesser amounts of E1 and E2 effects, and the E3 component has probably fried the entire country’s electrical grid anyway.

It is probable that an EMP attack would probably have at least two devices detonating, some time apart – one a bit further southeast of the location on the above map to get the eastern part of the country, and the other a bit further southwest so as to be sure to give California a good toasting too.

Here is another graphic which shows another set of suggested radii for EMP explosions at varying heights.  Unfortunately, this graphic is not quite as sophisticated as the one above – it fails to allow for the distorting effect of the magnetic field and we draw your attention to it more to point out that it is incorrect rather than that it is correct, although the general concept of how far an EMP would be felt as related to the height of the explosion is useful to see.

The Growing Vulnerability of Modern Electronics to EMP

The E1 and E2 components of an EMP create a voltage across space.  Think of two wires with a spark going between them.  You probably know that the higher the voltage between them, the stronger the spark, and you probably also know that if the voltage is low enough, there will be no spark at all.

It requires approximately 20,000 volts for a spark to travel one inch.  Or, to put this another way, a one volt difference will spark across a 20,000th of an inch.

Integrated circuits – the ‘chips’ in computers and other solid state controller devices – have shrunk in size down to as little as 10 nanometers between ‘wires’ in the chips, and with some new devices going down as low as 1.5 nanometers.  There are 25,400 nanometers in an inch, so for a spark to travel 10 nanometers would require a potential difference of about 8 volts (in air).

While EMPs don’t create that intensity of voltage (they are projected to run between about 20,000 – 50,000 volts per yard/meter, or about 500 – 1250 volts per inch), it is possible for wires in a chip and other wires connected to the chip to act as ‘antennas’, and just like a radio antenna that magnifies and feeds in the signal of the radio waves to a radio receiver, these antennas can inadvertently and unavoidably magnify the EMP signal and then feed it into the chip, readily allowing voltages much greater than 8 volts to then arc across the circuitry and ‘fry’ the device.

The increasing miniaturization and closer and closer packing of components in chips is reducing the amount of voltage needed to arc across from one wire/component to another, with the arcing damaging/destroying the circuits in the process (as you can probably guess, with computer chips there is really no such thing as a ‘damaged’ chip – it either works or doesn’t work – even a small measure of damage is enough to destroy the device’s overall functionality).

The lower the voltage, the more likely it is that whatever amount of EMP induced voltage there is ‘out there’ that gets carried in to the device will be sufficient to destroy it.

We mentioned, above, that state of the art now involves distances in the order of 10 nanometers (requiring an 8 V potential difference for arcing to occur).  Compare that to the early computers of not quite 30 years ago – the 8088 chip had 3,000 nanometer circuitry – 300 times more widely spaced, and requiring about 2500 V to arc across it.

So in less than 30 years, our computerized equipment has become 300 times more vulnerable to EMP effects.  Progress is a funny thing, isn’t it.

There’s another factor at work, too.  Thirty years ago (we’re using this time period at random – choose any other time period you like and adjust appropriately) computers were still rare, and most devices were ‘analog’ rather than ‘digital’. Cars had points and coils rather than electronic ignition, and had no computer controllers in them at all.  Maybe a 30-year-old car exposed to a high level E1/2 pulse might have part of its coil short out, or arcing over the contacts in its points, but those are minor issues requiring minimal repair work to restore the car to working order.

What happens to a modern car (or bus or truck or plane or boat any other vehicle at all) when its multiple computer control circuits are all fried?  Do you even know how many computers are in a typical car these days?  Typically anywhere from perhaps 30 or so in a basic car up to 100 or more in a fully optioned up-market car.

It isn’t just transportation.  Look around your house.  The same ‘stealth’ proliferation of computers is occurring everywhere.  Even such basic things as your phone has gone from totally analog and mechanical (remember rotary dial telephones?) to computerized, and the same can be said for your stove, your fridge, your heating thermostat, and many other things where you’ve taken for granted the evolution from mechanical controls to electronic controls without even thinking about it.

Derivative Damage Too

The problem of an EMP pulse extends beyond the destruction of much electrical and electronic equipment and control circuitry.  What happens to the devices that these circuits are controlling when the circuits themselves suddenly fail?

If you are driving your car down the road, you are probably okay.  Your engine will fail, you’ll lose your power steering and power brakes, but you should be able to step hard on the brake pedal and wrestle the steering wheel to pull your car over and to a safe stop.

But what if you are in a plane?  What happens when not only its engines fail, but so too do the flight management and control surface computers?

What happens when your freezer fails?  You lose all the food in it.  What happens when the pumping circuitry at the city water supply fails?  You lose fresh water.  What happens when the cool store refrigeration fails?  Up to a year’s worth of apples, potatoes, whatever, all start to rapidly spoil – and, with no working trucks, there’s no way to get them to the markets and for people to do something with them.

What happens when the banking system’s computers all fail?  How does your employer get money to pay you?  What do you do for cash with ATM machines frozen, and bank vaults unable to be opened, and even if the banks could open their vaults, how would they know how much money to give you without being able to access your account records?

Indeed, if you have any sort of job that involves any sort of computerization (in other words, just about every job out there now!) your employer is going to be struggling to remain in business.  Maybe you’ll not have a job any more.

What happens when the computerized equipment used to make medicines fail?  What happens when the control circuitry at the local nuclear power station fails (or starts to give erroneous commands)?  And so on and so on.  It isn’t just the loss of the control functions, but the consequences that impact on the things they were controlling that will be harmful to us too.

Multiple Dangers

People too often think of how to survive an EMP attack in terms of a ‘single strike’ – that is, of only one EMP detonation occurring.

But if you were an enemy nation or terrorist group, and if you had multiple nuclear devices (it seems that any and every power that has one nuclear weapon has many more than one) why would you content yourself with a single EMP attack?  Wouldn’t it make sense to trigger a second EMP a few days after the first EMP – this second event would then take out all the reserve and protected equipment that had been subsequently deployed and were now being pressed into service.

Maybe also some partially hardened devices had survived the first attack, but in a damaged/weakened form.  Perhaps half the national electricity grid was still operating (very unlikely, but we can always hope).  A second EMP could overwhelm and complete the destruction of devices that were partially impaired with the first EMP attack.

To put it more colorfully, a first EMP could bomb us back to a level of technological deployment similar to the mid/late nineteenth century.  A second EMP truly would take us back to the stone age (okay, so we slightly exaggerate, but you get the point).

The concept of a delayed follow-up attack is already well enshrined in warfare.  World War 2 saw aerial bombing of cities with a mix of regular bombs and delayed action bombs, with the intention being the delayed action bombs, when they too exploded, would take out the cities’ first responder and damage control teams.

But wait, there’s more.  If two, why not three?  Four?  The reality is that as soon as a single EMP attack occurs, we have to plan to live a life that has an ever-present ongoing danger of future EMP attacks, too.

This consideration massively complicates the creation of a comprehensive prepping plan to survive multiple EMP attacks.

The Appeal of an EMP Attack to an Enemy

The most obvious appeal of an EMP type of attack is that it would be more colossally devastating to the US than any other form of nuclear attack.  This is the other side of the coin – the more we expose ourselves and make our country vulnerable to an EMP attack, the more attractive and more likely one becomes.

There are other reasons that also encourage our enemies to consider an EMP attack.  An EMP style of nuclear device is probably the easiest type of nuclear device to construct, and doesn’t need to be very powerful – a country with only a limited amount of uranium could use it to make more EMP bombs than regular bombs.

An EMP style of attack also doesn’t need precise targeting.  A much cruder type of missile can be used to convey the bomb from wherever it may be launched, with CEP accuracy of as much as 100 miles (ie having the missile detonate anywhere in a 100 mile radius of its target point) being more than adequate.  Whereas missiles aimed at hardened targets need CEP accuracy in the order of tens of yards, and missiles aimed at population centers need to have accuracy of perhaps 5 miles or so, an EMP device has no such constraints, making for a massive reduction in the complicated process of delivering a missile to its target.

So if you were a terrorist group, or an enemy state, which would you prefer?  Two EMP bombs that between them would totally wipe out all industry and electronics across the entire US, a loss which would take years if not decades to recover from, or a single bomb that would destroy much but not all of only one major city?

There’s another aspect to this as well.  A traditional nuclear attack on typical targets would damage the country, for sure, but those parts of the country unharmed would be, well, unharmed, as would those parts of our military forces, leaving us with the ability to mount a conventional or nuclear return attack on the attacker (assuming we knew who and where the enemy was, of course).  But an EMP attack would zero out much of our advanced technology, and these days our armed services is all about technologically based ‘force multipliers’.  If our armed services lost all their fancy comms and data and GPS type capabilities, all their night-sights and other gadgetry, they’d be ill-equipped to take on other forces around the world, making our ability to stage a counter-attack much less certain.

It is true that the military continue to research and develop ‘hardening’ capabilities to make some of their equipment somewhat EMP resilient.  But their procedures embody some assumptions about the maximum possible levels of EMP that need to be withstood, and these assumptions may not be fully correct.  Furthermore, the nature of inter-locking dependencies in our modern world is such that, in the armed services and in society in general, failures of just one system may render many other systems inoperable.  A 90% resiliency to an EMP attack doesn’t mean the forces maintain a 90% effectiveness rate; their effectiveness might drop to 50% or even to 10%.

So, selecting an EMP type of attack seems an easy and obvious choice for a terrorist, doesn’t it.  Unfortunately.

As for us as preppers, while we might carefully choose a retreat location so as to be well removed from obvious nuclear targets, there is nowhere in North America where we’d be safely away from the effects of an EMP based attack.

We will write subsequently about what can be done to minimize the impacts of an EMP attack.